LAST FALL, I met for dinner one evening with a well-known middle-age black woman lawyer who has been an interpreter, alarm-raiser and analyzer of the teen-age pregnancy crisis among inner-city black youths. She was shocked when I told her about teen-agers' attitudes toward pregnancy and childbearing in the poor community of Washington Highlands.
As I had done the year before, the woman lawyer kept referring back to her own childhood, community and family, looking for something comparable to the attitudes I was describing.
I finally told her to stop because there was nothing in her growing up nor in mine that either of us could apply to the lives I was describing.
During last month's celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Kennedy Center, I sat next to a young, middle-class black married mother who grew up, she said, in the Maryland suburban community of Silver Spring. We briefly discussed my research among teen-agers and young adults in Washington Highlands. The woman works at a federal agency where she said she comes into contact with black secretaries and messengers from "Southeast" and added: "I don't understand the way they think. I guess it's because I grew up middle class."
These two women represented to me the state of my own ignorance 17 months ago when I began my research on a series about teen-age pregnancy among poor black youths. Now I feel that I understand the reasons for this crisis in our communities and in cities across America. The reasons are not what I had thought they would be. And among blacks, a significant minority has reacted with deep anger and hostility toward me for publicly stating what I now understand to be the facts.
I bring these two women up because their comments stick in my mind now that I have completed the six-part series, "At Risk: Chronicles of Teen-age Pregnancies" that ran in this newspaper Jan. 26-31. People have asked me what the solution to this crisis is. I wish the answer were simple. My answer does not rely on government agencies or programs. It begins with accepting the truth, and it winds up with people like myself, those two women and others like us who must be willing to tackle rather than turn away from a problem that will not leave us alone.
I had assumed that the problem of teen-age pregnancy was one of youthful ignorance and male exploitation of vulnerable, emotionally needy girls. I was wrong on both counts. I found that teen-age boys and girls as young as 11 knew as much about sex and birth control as I did. And, I found that the girls, far from being passive victims, were often equal -- or greater -- actors with their boyfriends in exploring their sexuality and desires to have a child.
A child was a tangible achievement in otherwise dreary and empty lives. In Washington Highlands having a child is a rite of passage to adulthood for many boys and girls. In a world where few other goals can be attained, it's a way of saying: I am a woman. I am a man.
And only after months of talking did people begin telling me the truth. At that point, seven months into my reporting, I realized that I was walking into an emotional minefield.
The girls began to reveal their deepest fears and desires. For example, one girl said that she wanted a baby from her boyfriend because he, unlike her, was light-skinned. The mother and boyfriend of another girl insisted that the 15-year-old adolescent had become pregnant to keep up with her girl friends, who all had children. A third girl had not wanted children but had had two by the age of 15 starting with a game of sexual conquest -- conquering a male peer so she could brag to her girlfriends.
I became very depressed in the first several months of the project. Although I hadn't had anyone begin to really tell me the truth yet and it was still a slow process of peeling away the layers to get to the core, I realized that the situation of the black poor was one to which I saw no easy solution. I find it difficult to imagine -- realistically -- any government programs that will turn this situation around.
If the crisis of black teen-age parents were simply one of ignorance, it might be easy enough to solve. But this crisis isn't one problem; it is several, intertwined, and none can be solved in isolation from the others.
While I was working on the series, I met two brothers, both young fathers, and their sister, a young mother. They were all school dropouts from the same family who were in Job Corps training programs. They were training, respectively, to be a bricklayer-welder, painter and nurse. After the two young men graduated from the Job Corps with their proudly-held journeymen certificates, they could not find jobs in Washington or arrange for transportation from their isolated Washington Highlands community to construction sites in Virginia where the jobs are. They and the other young men in their community cannot afford to buy cars. As a result, both men have worked off and on for the past year at fast food resturants.
Their younger sister dropped out of the Job Corps program to take a much needed job as a counter girl at a fast food restaurant. She came up $20 short on her cash receipts one night, was suspended for two weeks and never went back. She has since had a second child.
These youngsters and so many of their neighborhood peers desperately need someone to work with them on a one-on-one basis. They came from a home where their mother had no time for the emotional nurturing they needed to cope with life. Unemployed, a welfare recipient for 20 years, she faces this question at the end of almost every month : How am I going to feed my kids tomorrow, because the last bit of food in the house is gone? She talked openly with me about her own deficiencies in raising her children and how she would tell them when they were young "You'll never be nothing."
Her harsh words have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. These three young people quickly gave up on what they had started out to be when they encountered the first barrier. They are not alone in Washington Highlands and there are many more like them in the blighted cores of America's cities. They need someone who will care enough to restore their self-confidence when their very, very fragile egos are bruised by the slightest defeat -- someone who will calm them when the slightest insult sends them into a dangerous rage.
They need a person who will take them through a mock job interview, telling them how to sit and how to answer questions and to wipe the suspicious-hostile expressions from their faces. Someone to tell them that not every stranger is their enemy. Where is the money, where is the government agency that will send someone? Where are the people to provide the care, the instruction and yes, the love, that they did not get when they needed it so badly? They need so much that agencies and institutions cannot provide -- someone with patience who will work with them one-on-one and not judge them by their frailties or their class.
There is no one to do those things for those three young adults, and it should come as no surprise that they are passing on to their children the same attitudes of defeat that, in part, are keeping them -- without hope and without goals -- at the very bottom of our society. I will not be surprised to hear any of the three say to one of their children one day soon, "You'll never be nothing!"
I received a strong reaction to the series from blacks who live at various economic levels of American society. The overwhelming majority of middle-class blacks who responded said they were now better enlightened on a social issue that had deeply perturbed them. But significant numbers of them were angry with me for shining a light into a corner they felt was best left in the dark.
The critics accused me of betraying the black community by exposing for public examination the desperate choices made by people in desperate situations. Middle-class blacks were angered because they feel their status is threatened, that the larger white, middle-class society will associate patterns of behavior growing out of the circumstances of poverty with all blacks. They are afraid that exposure of the problem will somehow suck the black middle class back into a racial vortex from which generations of our forebears have sacrificed and struggled against painful odds to escape.
One well-known black psychiatrist suggested to me that my series had contributed to the "dehumanizing" of blacks in the eyes of whites. She said the Nazis had implemented the same process in pre-World War II Germany before unleashing the Holocaust against Europe's Jewish population.
While listening to the psychiatrist, I wanted to suggest that she work closelywith a teen-age mother. I wanted to suggest that she not psychoanalyze the girl, but take the adolescent by the hand -- almost like a mother -- toward options many of these kids do not see as achievable -- high school educations, rewarding careers and financial independence. But I felt that her position was so extreme that she would not take my suggestion seriously, and I let the moment pass.
Many residents of Washington Highlands, I was told, were angered and embarrassed by the series. One young black male said in a face-to-face meeting that he had wanted to fight me the Sunday he read the first piece.
The feeling is that a black reporter had betrayed a black community by running it down. That I had ignored the many law-abiding, church-going, hard-working people of the mile-square neighborhood and concentrated my descriptions on its least attractive features. I had focused attention on its high levels of violent crime, the drug dealing and the human sexuality of the community's youth. One Baptist minister said my stories concentrated "on the sordid" aspects of people's lives. He said that I had upset one of the families featured in the series, had given his church "a black eye" and indicated that he did not see where the stories had served any useful purpose.
I understand their anger and distress, but my response has been that the crisis in numbers is in the black community. I was distressed myself when I returned after nearly five years of reporting in Africa at the end of 1983 to discover a crisis of epic proportions in my own community. I learned that 58 percent of all black babies born that year were the children of single mothers and that 38 percent of those mothers were teen-agers. Some journalists, scholars and friends gave generalized, simple explanations in characterizing the crisis. I remained unsatisfied. I wanted to know why.
I went after a story that was sensitive and I felt that the public's very real need to know about this crisis meant it had to be told in terms of real people, a genuine slice of life that would rivet readers' attention to the issue. I was painfully aware of the sensitivity of the issue, but I also believe that we have to do something about it rather than turn our backs on it.
It may be that some whites read those stories and drew conclusions about all blacks. What I hope those who read the series will realize is that the stories do not represent a black problem but are an American example of the culture of poverty and alienation that exists all over the world. It is the same in all societies I have lived and traveled in in America, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. I believe that the behavior and the choices I described -- boys and girls having children -- follows universal patterns of behavior in many outcast communities, such as the Koreans in Japan, the poor, coastal fishing villagers in Scotland, the Maori in New Zealand and the gypsies in Yugoslavia.
As I reported the series, I realized that teen-age pregnancy was tied to self-esteem which in turn was tied to work. I reached a point where I could tell, when I walked into anyone's house, who was working and who was not by the expression on a person's face. If they were happy I knew they were working. The unemployed and recently laid off were always sullen, a general hostility not directed at me. And I'm talking about young males and females.
I began to think about how many of us middle-class professionals take our jobs and our careers for granted. We don't recognize how much it fulfills us in terms of self-esteem. A lot of the negative behavior I saw and was told about I came to see as being intricately linked with a person's ability to earn an income. The teen-agers I spent a lot of time with see their economic futures as limited.
Enormous pressure is put on the young men by their girlfriends, regardless if the young women are mothers, to be providers. A male who cannot bring money into a relationship is "triflin,'" lazy and no good. Many of the young men are unemployed and, therefore, by the young women's measure, considered triflin'.
Education might provide an escape. But education is not a priority in their homes; survival is. The school system has failed them. They are marginally educated; often they lose the motivation to continue their studies in junior high school.
I was surprised to meet youths in Washington Highlands who don't know how to fill out a form or who would ask me to interpret the plain language of a classified employment advertisement. Many adults were intimidated by any government bureaucracy, even the administrative and teaching staff of their local schools. Getting a driver's license is a major obstacle to a job.
Charles, for example, knows that his reading skills are poor, so he engages in a lot of subterfuge about why he does not have a driver's license. I ask, "Charles, how come you haven't gotten your driver's license?"
"Oh, I don't have time," is his response. Charles has nothing but time. He has one excuse after another. Charles won't go get a driver's license because he's afraid he won't be able to read the form.
I understand all too well the middle-class blacks who reacted with anger when I depicted Charles' world. I have a friend who lives in the suburbs. We have been arguing and disagreeing since we met in New York City in 1963. He does not bother to hide his genuine attitudes and fears from me.
My friend grew up poor in a segregated, black rural community in southern Virginia and raised himself from the age of 11. He has a masters degree and works for a federal agency. He is buying a middle class home and raising three children. The oldest boy is in college. He has two cars and a wooden barbecue deck. He believes that all of this can be taken away from him tomorrow because he is black. He talks with genuine fear of middle class blacks living a very fragile existence in America.
He became very angry with me when we talked, prior to publication, about my discoveries in Washington Highlands. He did not want me to write it. Exposure of the problem of teen-age pregnancy among blacks, he said, would be contributing to the arsenal of the Reagan administration's conservatives who are already attacking blacks and want to send him back to live in segregated, rural poverty.
During my research, as my friend and I argued, I had one simple message for him: You and I have to take responsibility for this problem.
For professional reasons, I did not offer opinions or guidance to the people I was interviewing. When I was aware that someone was about to make a foolish decision, such as dropping out of school when they did not have to, I was unwilling, in most cases, to intervene with advice. I wanted to see situations unfold as if I had not been there.
My 17 months in Washington Highlands brought me to a crucial realization. It took me six months to reach the point where people would begin to talk to me honestly about their lives and the motivations for the decisions they make. I am a well-paid newspaper reporter who had the luxury to indulge my interest in this issue. I think of the people who work in the government institutions that are trying to turn this complex problem around but who are not as well paid and do not have the incentive or time to win the trust of the people they want to help.
Individual trust is what is needed. The people of government and private charitable agencies will be able to donate food and clothing and offer jobs. But they will not have made a dent in the wall of problems imprisoning these young people.
Up to the point when the series was published, I functioned as a reporter. Now I have dissolved the wall I put between me and the friends I made while working on it. I am also a member of this community and a person. There is not much that I can do, but I am resolved -- as a person -- to do what I can. I have decided first to stay in contact with them, to listen to their problems, to give advice and to intervene in their lives when I can make a difference.
I have been suggesting to the black middle-class people who have called -- both to praise the series or to criticize it -- that they might consider doing the same.